Remaking of downtown Towson subject of discussion

Downtown Towson is changing and just how profound the change will be was the subject of a panel discussion Tuesday during the "It's Towson's Time" event sponsored by the Urban Land Institute Baltimore and hosted by Goucher College.

"This is a generational moment of change in Towson. We are going beyond one mall," said panel moderator Will Anderson, director of the county's department of economic and workforce development, referring to Towson Town Center. "What's happening is transforming."


During the event, which drew more than a 100 people, panel members talked about current and future development and their effects including mixed-use projects like Towson Row and Towson Square, with residential, retail, office and cultural components.

Anderson said that 56,000 people now work in downtown Towson. And soon, one million people are predicted to visit downtown during the course of one year, for the retail, restaurants and entertainment, Anderson said.


"How you handle the burgeoning growth in Towson" is a question county government is addressing, Anderson said. The goal is to "maximize development and knowledgeable management for a livable space."

Panelist Andrea Van Arsdale, the county's director of planning, said that because of the number of apartment complexes and new residents they will bring, the county is focusing on parking, roads, traffic and security.

However, the county is not anticipating new road construction. "We'll manage what we have better," she said, although street-scaping and security measures like upgraded public lighting are possibilities. "The police are on track for changes," she added, to be less parking meter enforcers and more helpful guides to visitors.

Van Arsdale said traditionally, downtown Towson is viewed as "a sleepy suburban area."


"That's not what we are," she said.

Panelist Arsh Mirmiran, partner in Caves Valley Partners, spoke about Towson Row, which his firm plans to develop at the intersection of York Road and Towsontown Boulevard. The high-density, mixed use development is located on 5 acres of aggregated space. The initial cost is pegged at $300 million; demolition of existing buildings will begin in 2015.

"It's not the first project in Towson but it's an interesting one," Mirmiran said.

The development consists of buildings of various heights to include a 300-plus student housing unit with 900-beds; 375 market-rate rental apartments, although a few might be turned into condominiums; 200-room hotel; 200,000 square feet office space in a seven or eight story building; 100,000 square feet retail, including a 50,000 to 70,000 square-foot upscale grocery store; 350,000 square feet of retail space; and 1,500 parking spaces in underground and structural garages.

Mirimiran said the entrance on York Road will open onto a central plaza that will be a public park. The developer will build a road that bisects the middle of the site. The hotel building may contain two different hotel brands. A grocery tenant may be announced in mid-2014. The buildings will be built to a LEED Silver sustainability designation, he said.

In addition, he said, Caves Valley Partners, recently acquired the vacant Towson Armory as part of Towson Row. Because of its historical status, it will be renovated into an office/retail space.

Mirmiran said he could envision multiple companies that are now headquartered in Hunt Valley and Sparks relocating to Towson Row. "Their employees might want an urban lifestyle."

Panelist Margaret Meginniss, partner in Sierra US, talked about leasing Towson Commons, on West Pennsylvania Avenue. In 2013, Garrison Investment Group bought the 350,000 square-foot building, of which about two-thirds is office space and the rest retail space and a parking garage.

In the office space, General Dynamics Information Technology renewed its lease and expanded its office, at a cost of a $10-million. In the retail space, LA Fitness will open this month after an almost $7 million renovation.

Meginniss expects other lifestyle retail and restaurants to follow. "Towson is a hot market for retail," she said. "I'm looking forward to opening stores in 2015."

Panelist Taylor Gray, director of development at The Cordish Company, outlined progress at its development, Towson Square, on Joppa Road, in partnership with Heritage Properties. The $85 million entertainment venue includes a 15-screen, 3,400-seat movie theater, eight restaurants and an 850-slot parking garage.

"Cordish has had the development on the books since 2005," Gray said.

At that time, though, an AMC movie theater operated in Towson Commons. When that movie theater closed, "it opened a market for us," Gray said.

Indeed, the expansion of Towson Town Center and other future projects were a draw for potential tenants at Towson Square. "It allowed us to tell people, we're not competing with downtown" Baltimore City, said Gray, because Towson is its own destination.

From the perspective of Towson University, panelist Mark Behm, assistant to the president for special projects, said the growth of downtown Towson is welcome. The university is doing the same on its own campus in anticipation of increasing the student population from its current about 19,000 to 25,000 by 2020.

In the next 10 years, Towson University expects to spend $1 billion for on-campus renovation and construction. Among the first scheduled to be built are a new dining hall and two new dormitories, Behm said.

"We know there is a demand for over 2,000 beds" in terms of student housing, said Behm, who expects that in the next 10 years, Towson Row and its own on-campus construction will satisfy that demand.

Students will walk," he said of the future Towson Row, "but not in dark areas and not in deserted areas," a reference to improved public lighting and in-fill construction. In addition, the university plans to have shuttle buses to transport students from the campus to housing in downtown Towson, Behm said.

Also part of the panel was Sanford Unger, president of Goucher College, who talked about the history of Goucher.

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